Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 26 August 2014

Heyneke, please give us a reason to celebrate

We’re coming up to an important anniversary on the sports calendar, one with the potential to be a tremendous source of national pride. Consider this a plea to those with the power to shape our rugby team’s future and performance: don’t mess it up at this critical moment.

Amidst all the red overhaul fuss, elections, Nkandla, the Farlam Commission, et cetera, one theme has remained persistent for 2014: the fact that we as South Africans are celebrating twenty years of democracy. Next year we will be celebrating another twenty years – an achievement from two decades ago that was so phenomenal that it was brought to the silver screen. And Clint Eastwood directed Morgan Freeman as Madiba and Matt Damon as François Pienaar, no less.

After years of self-inflicted, Apartheid-induced exclusion from the international sporting scene, South Africa hosted the very first Rugby World Cup competition it participated in, in 1995. Despite the behemoth on two tree trunks that moved like a speeding locomotive – Jonah Lomu – we won the very first international competition we participated in, at the pinnacle of the rugby calendar.

So considering that this moment, which would seem to be an insignificant blip in the grand scheme of global history, was big enough to attract a Hollywood, Oscar-nominated epic drama script, we should take it seriously. We should celebrate it. Before 1995, it was no more than a game of thirty men; wrestling, spilling blood, tears and sweat over an oval ball, a game relegated to the label of “a boere sport”. The 1995 World Cup, true to the Eastwood movie, was the very first event following the 1994 elections that brought us together as a nation.

The World Cup win took that obscure, at times hated “boere sport” and turned it into a national pastime. Little boys with coarse hair and tans like myself picked up balls; at times round ones meant for kicking; if we were lucky, oval ones meant for rugby, and ran the length of our school playgrounds imagining ourselves as Chester Williams, Jonah Lomu and James Small. Some of those little boys with tans managed to don the green and gold jersey themselves. To this day, despite a clear need for transformation, particularly at schools and community level, rugby has remained a national pastime.

If Heyneke Meyer got to read this column, he would probably be pissed off, considering that at this very moment, our Springboks are at the top of the log of the current four nations Rugby Championship tournament. By September last year, he was listed as the second-most successful, post-isolation national coach, with a 72% victory rate, a record he surely smashed by now. So why piss the guy off with couch-written rugby critique?

The reality is that we, on two occasions, beat the lowest-ranking team in the four nations tournament, Argentina. All credit is due to Argentina, since their game has improved exponentially over the last decade or so. They have really elevated their skill and are competing with the big boys, but they are not quite there yet. We happen to be those big boys, and they aren’t quite able to beat us confidently at the moment.

With Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all tied for two World Cup victories each since the commencement of the tournament in 1987, I believe that it would be a great tribute to the phenomenal class of 1995, and to our late Madiba, if our Springboks went out and graced us with the first Rugby World Cup hat-trick. In fact, if I had the time and the money, it would have been my little pet project for the next few months in the lead-up to the games to be hosted in England.

That dream, albeit small in a world of ISIS, Gaza, Ukraine and #PayBackTheMoney, seems a bit far off. We continue to see the coach reach into his little black book and call up legends that should remain retired from South African rugby. Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Juan Smit – even Fourie Du Preez; these are all names that hoisted former President Thabo Mbeki on their shoulders as they brought back the 2007 Rugby World Cup. By next year, however, it would have been a gruelling eight years that would have passed since that great victory – eight years that would have rapidly aged super athletes way past their prime, grilled by sporting seasons that are arguably way too long.

One can’t blame them and other players that should give way to a younger generation of players. Who would pass up on that one last chance to recapture the glory of hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup twice in one career? The issue lies with the coach and the rest of the people that make these selections: auxiliary tournaments such as the Super Rugby Championships, the Curry Cup and perhaps even the Vodacom Cup give them ample opportunity to look for that next generation of players that can be groomed to follow in the footsteps of their heroes.

In fact, when one sees young rising stars like Lood De Jager and Eben Etzebeth, it is clear that come 2015, we should have no need to field Botha or Matfield. This last game proved to me that one of my favourite loose forwards of all time, Juan Smit, should remain retired from Springbok rugby, considering that Marcel Coetzee shone and Siya Kolisi can really be moulded into a legendary flank. Willie Le Roux at fullback has ensured that my television remains intact as I no longer feel the urge to hurl projectiles at it due to Zane Kirchner’s regular, questionable play.

As for the half-back combination we seem to be struggling with, how on earth do we solve the issue if we refuse to settle on a primary combination – two guys who know that come World Cup, they bear the responsibility of the nine and ten jersey while the two others are their capable understudies? The final bone of contention is also the biggest: those horrendous scrums that turned the world’s leading front row into faltering school boys. The rules have changed; we have lost the initiative with that initial hit, but we cannot blame the rules as a response. Ashwin Willemse has a point: maybe the world’s best front row no longer resides in Kwa-Zulu Natal; maybe they are up here where the air is thinner, in the Highveld, however this may sit with that other golden oldie, Gurthro Steenkamp.

The point is that despite our current number one position in this championship, I truly believe that our current glory will be short-lived. The All Blacks are running circles around their opposition and the Australian rebuild phase seems to be settling; the Northern Hemisphere still lacks a concerted threat, but never fails to surprise. If we continue to focus on current wins and fail to recognise the inevitable looming showdown, the one that matters, then we will not be able to use this twentieth anniversary since our first Rugby World Cup win as an opportunity to honour the legacy that Madiba, Kitch Christie and the rest of the class of 1995 gave us.

Every now and again we as South Africans need to be reminded that despite all the valleys that divide us such as class; money; political affiliation; and perspectives on history and race; something as insignificant as rugby brought us together, and it is worth it for Heyneke and his team to remind us of that every so often. DM

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